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Voters to consider whistleblower protections for St. Louis County workers

A screenshot of the May 10, 2022 meeting of the St. Louis County Council
Screenshot / Rachel Lippmann
St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis County Council on Tuesday voted to place enhanced whistleblower protections for county employees on the August ballot.

The St. Louis County Council is asking voters to authorize added whistleblower protections for the county’s more than 4,000 employees.

Council members voted unanimously Tuesday night to place the measure on the August ballot. If approved, anyone working for the county in any capacity could not face discipline if they speak up publicly about perceived lawbreaking, mismanagement or discrimination. Those protections would not apply if an employee is found to be lying.

The vote represented 14 months of work on the issue and two vetoes by County Executive Sam Page. Bills placing issues on the ballot cannot be vetoed.

“We will not delay this any longer,” Chair Rita Days, D-1st District, said Tuesday before the vote. “We have to put this on the ballot so the people of St. Louis County will make that decision. We don’t have time to wait. We have upwards of 10 to 15 lawsuits because whistleblower protection is not in place as it should be.”

Though Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, agreed to put the protections before voters, she said she was worried about a lack of specifics when it comes to the county police department.

“Police reform is an issue of vital importance to our community,” Clancy said. “It is far too important of a topic to allow for ambiguity about whether or not this will deliver the police reform and fairness for officers of color that our community wants to see.”

Days pointed out that police officers are employees of the county, and therefore covered. The Ethical Society of Police, which advocates for officers of color in the county, said in a statement that it “supports all legislation geared towards promoting transparency and protecting employees from retaliation for unveiling discriminatory or corrupt practices.”

Page had numerous objections, including that the language was too broad.

Appointment of department heads

Council members also sent to voters a measure that changes the way department heads are appointed in county government.

The changes are in direct response to Faisal Khan remaining as the acting director of the Department of Health, despite being rejected by the council in November.

If approved in August, directors would not be able to take over the position until they are confirmed by the county council, which would have 30 days to act. The county executive could not renominate a nominee who has been rejected. However, if the council does not act within the window provided, the nominee is considered confirmed. The changes would take effect Jan. 1, 2023.

The debate over the measure showed that fracture lines on the council can vary depending on the issue. Sixth District Councilman Ernie Trakas, a Republican from South County, used a procedural maneuver to replace the original proposal from his fellow Republican, Councilman Tim Fitch of the 3rd District.

“This bill takes a good idea and makes it a better idea,” Trakas said of his changes, a characterization that Fitch vehemently disputed.

Fitch wanted the change to take effect immediately and give the council 60 days to act.

“Basically, Mr. Trakas wants to give Mr. Page a pass to do as he pleases for the rest of his term,” Fitch said.

Fitch and the council’s third Republican, Councilman Mark Harder of the 7th District, ultimately joined Days in opposing Trakas’s measure. Clancy and Councilwomen Kelli Dunaway of the 2nd District and Shalonda Webb of the 4th District, both Democrats, joined Trakas in support.

Animal care

Also on Tuesday, the council approved a five-year, $15.8 million contract to have the Animal Protective Association of Missouri take over operations of the county’s shelter.

The shelter has been under scrutiny for years. An audit found that it had hidden its true euthanasia rate by only reporting cases in which the shelter had made the decision to put down a dog, not those in which the owner made the request. The audit found that the shelter also had a policy under which all owners checked a box making it look like they had requested euthanasia, even if they had not.

Some volunteers at the shelter also claimed that they were treated poorly and that the facility was not managed properly.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.